Anthony Bourdain’s suicide still sits inside me and shifts around as I move it backward and forward in my heart. His book and the one that changed his life from obscure kitchen lackey to major travel/foodie superstar is Kitchen Confidential, one of my favourite reads this century. I am now watching Parts Unknow in chronological order as I don’t get CNN and have never, ever watched that channel. As I watch him now, his haunted, lanky looks seem to be both a part of the world and not as he tries to inhabit places where real people live and eat. Even though you can tell through time his dress, luggage and everything got decidedly upscale, his love for the equality between the street and the temple was an embedded compass he brought everywhere. He always seems uncomfortable but delighted by the surprises and pleasure eating with other people can bring. He is at his best when among journalists, writers and thinkers as he himself is part of the club; a wonderful writer and philosopher who could probably tell you more about the world than any Phd. expert.
Upon reaching the summit of a temple in Myanmar his companion, one of the world’s greatest chef’s remarks at how special the view is, how holy and monumental it all is and imbued with spirituality. Bourdain responds by saying perhaps but also there must have been loads of slave labour involved in creating it. It is this world view that may have caused his eventual mortal decision, but it is also this kind of world view that for me is essential to understanding who we are as a species and where we are going. It now occurs to me that I have been underestimating my passion for who he was, what he stood for but mostly for what he said. While his shows were scripted by him, he was smart enough and creative enough to understand how to make spontaneous moments matter. He allowed himself to be in the moment on film. As you watch Parts Unknown you become aware at what a gift this is that we are left with.
Bourdain worked in restaurants for over 20 years before he wrote his first book and never made money until he was almost 50. For alternative types who are slow starters his journey is proof that youth isn’t necessarily the best place to shine. His age is very much a part of what made him so relatable; somewhat grumpy, a complete grasp of his capabilities and lack of, humble and honest about his origins, and a stoic perseverant spirit that knows that life unfolds in front of you and choice is all you have. He was a grown up. A real one. Hard drinking, former drug abuse and righteous sarcasm aside, knowing one’s faults and still showing up is the hallmark of maturation. Bourdain exemplified this in spades.
It may seem curious to some that I have chosen to laud a celebrity chef here in my little art blog as opposed to some inspiring artist or creative team. Unfortunately, I find that career-oriented curators and academia leaning art work uninteresting. I say unfortunately because an MA is the thing to have today and working with someone to get an international show seems to be the goal so… boring. Give me the travels and curious experiences of artists who do their own thing, set up their own shop, travel and make work that means something to them. I guess I wish the arts had an Anthony Bourdain. We don’t. Sadly, I don’t think that he’d be appreciated even if he did exist in the art world.
I don’t know why but the arts are missing that heroic panache of someone who calls out pretension and tries to level the playing field among the art stars and the not-art stars. Who is that person? They don’t exist. And maybe they can’t. Maybe the foodie world is easier for someone like Bourdain to exist in, perhaps because its frontline venues are eateries and not galleries. Or maybe the art world isn’t as curious about the bigger world the way Bourdain was.
Food can travel so well, be a symbol of a shared world, and involve everyone. Art should be like that too. I do see some vying for such a world and I am grateful. We should always see the struggle because we won’t always have a Bourdain to point it out.